Wednesday, December 26, 2012

brand new jeans

I know it might seem incredibly girly to write about a new pair of jeans. And I do feel a bit of a flashback from my Preview fashion magazine days, when I was a Lifestyle section editor. But there is something about donning a new pair of denims, some precious rite of passage, a feeling of newness and possibility--themes not so unusual at the end of the year or post Dec. 21, which, however, feel oh so tactile when you feel the hug of not yet worn textile.

Denims, in particular, due to their classic looks and fine weaves, can last a lifetime. Over the years, some may favor a particular look, a special phase of life, phases even. They join us in our adventures and misadventures. Sometimes they even become an integral part of our stories.

I am wearing a new pair now as I travel from Manila to Mysore, where I sense new adventures await. I bought these to replace the ones I purchased at the start of this summer, a pair of Levi's that I wore in heavy rotation as I visited Bankok, England and traveled across Europe. They went down the same road as me, walked through the same trials, absorbed my crazies and my sadnesses, fed off my triumphs and joys. At the end they ripped right at the crotch, at the root of the body. They didn't last long but they'd been through a lot.

And now, a new pair. Boy, do they feel great! They want wearing. I feel the newness of them. I feel them on my skin, in my bones, in my cells. I feel different wearing them. I feel how they are a much better fit, how the style suits me better. The last pair were great as well. They were perfect when we started with each other, but then we both changed. They got worn out, I got worn out.

With these new jeans I feel my own newness, my own potential. And maybe not just through the jeans but down to my own genes, where surely real change is more lasting.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

my manila moment

A month goes by fast, especially so close to the end of the year. It’s been a mad Manila moment. Good mad. It's been quite a full experience. 

As a yoga teacher, there has been a lot of teaching—I’ve never taught so many classes before, maybe ever.  During peak season in Boracay, there would be 2 or 3 weeks so of intense work. But then it would always peter off to a manageable island pace. 

As a yoga student, there has been a lot of life lessons. And as usual, Manila has been an extraordinary classroom.

As difficult as it is, at times, to manage a hectic schedule, to negotiate traffic, to spend time with family and friends, to find time to rest let alone have a sustaining self-practice, I feel an incredible sense of joy being here.

I came home to share and this objective has been so greatly supported by the two studios (Urban Ashram and Yoga Manila) that have so warmly welcomed me for the short term, by some remarkably seasoned yoga practitioners who are willing to entrust me even in the most difficult positions, by those curious enough to try my themed yogasana classes—which didn’t fall into any of the usual categories at UA—and especially by those who came back for more.

It's no coincidence that the lessons I shared over the month’s teaching are the same lessons that I am also myself learning: establishing one's practice, grounding, centering, seeing one's inner light, accepting/embracing the self. 

I wish I could say that I was sharing from a vault of prevailing wisdom. But in truth it all comes from a crazy heap of life experiences, many mistakes, much fumbling. I feel encouraged to see how all the moments of falling, and with them all the moments of getting up, brushing myself off, and starting over seem to be really worthwhile.  Not just worth while--it almost feels like these are the moments that matter the most, that make the biggest difference.

I've also been greatly supported by family, my dad in particular. They have so beautifully adapted to me popping in and out of their lives and to my alien vegetarianism--vegetables are usually served with meat in the Philippines. They are so generous when I do come "home," they are a quiet force behind the work that I do when I'm here. It is such a boon to know that though yoga continues to be vague to them, they appreciate that it makes me a happy, more balanced person and family member. 

There's the Universe, of course, which continues to steer my "education," introducing me in the most opportune times to just the right person, bringing about just the right topic of conversation, bit of literature, chance meetings, or human drama. (Yes, dear, Universe, I am listening. I'm a bit hard of hearing sometimes, but I know you are there and that you are trying speak to me). 

Then there's me. That kind of sounds weird, I know. But I am supporting myself too. I haven't been so much alone with myself for a very long while. And this month has given me some precious personal time. In the car, during the wait in between classes, so many moments this month where it's just been... me. I have to admit being so much on my own does rattle me some and I have moaned about feeling lonely at least once. Still, I also feel it has been a good time. I've been talking to myself. Not in the strange skitzo way. My dialogues are mostly internal, though admittedly some are full on out loud conversations--usually in the car, there's a lot of time in the car in Manila. I've had some good heart to hearts with myself, some emotional purges, and quite a few pep talks. It's been really nice. I'm really enjoying my own company, my own head space.

In all, I'm loving this short Manila meeting. It's been an interesting dialogue with the city and with those who I have had the good fortune to cross paths with. There have been many points of connection and disconnection. There have been moments of flow. And some moments of obstruction. Despite the push and pull, I feel the positive effects of movement. I feel incredible gratitude for all that has brought me to this moment.

As I close this time, I feel satisfied that I have done what I came to do. I came to rest my roots in this crazy extreme land that I know more than any other--and that knows me, as well. I've gained support and strength from this hot mess of fertile land. I feel refreshed enough to pack my bags and continue forward on this inexhaustible journey.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

manila mind and the city's yoga boom

Scenes from the road: EDSA. 

As I drive to my 7am yoga class at Yoga Manila in Chi Spa,
Shangri-la Edsa. 
You've heard of a "monkey mind," right? I always visualize monkeys swinging here and there, everywhere. Chaotic and mischievous. Almost cute, actually, though it connotes the unsettled mental state.

These days I've been battling what I call the "Manila mind"...

Imagine the intellect locked in the grips of bumper to bumper traffic, moving very VERY slowly. Also restless, but unlike monkeys, unable to move freely. Unable to run, or play, or jump from tree to tree. Unable to live in accordance to its true jungle nature. It is trapped in gridlock. From all sides, it is being subjected to a canopy of media, giant billboards, print and digital, each one puling at the eyes, drawing the attention from the course ahead.

It's insane: the slew of commercial models selling all sorts of wares. Clothes, underwear, mobile phones, fast food. Two lovingly look at each others' eyes over instant noodle soup in a styro cup. I nearly drive into a concrete crash barrier when I spot a Lactacyd White Intimate ad the size of a small building along C-5. The feminine wash boasts of being able to lighten ladies' privates with marine and plant-based extracts. WHAT? Or better yet: WHY??!!

"Target your market"? Um, hello! Are we
human beings or commercial prey? 
If not the ads, then there's traffic. If not the traffic, then there are the high-rise buildings popping up like mushrooms throughout the metro. Everywhere, I feel a sense of growing density. People living, crawling on top of each other. I know most people will call this progress, but it is tight out here!

Obviously, I've been spending too much time on the road again. But this is life in Manila. These are the obstacles to living here, the veils that drape over the essence of this truly special country.

Even off the road, we've gotten used to visual multi-tasking. You can be lunching with friends and each one will be plugged into various interfaces, 3G or wi-fi, and checked into different online platforms: text, email, facebook, twitter, foursquare. We're so used to meeting virtually, are we loosing touch of actually connecting?

It's hard to find space in the city, especially this one. There are few parks where one can just sit, look up, see sky. And what about the inner space, where we might have some stillness or roominess to stretch out from the compression that occurs in the city?

Maybe that's part of why yoga is becoming so big in Manila. The city is getting bigger, building upwards, sideways, all directions. People are looking for space to breathe. More and more people are taking up yoga and joining the various yoga studios (which are also, incidentally, sprouting up like mushrooms, albeit the happy magical kind). The appeal, I think, is that they are finding room to stretch out, staking out some sacred space within the area of a 70 x 180 cm rubber mat.

I know for myself, it's challenging to not get swept up in this insane energy. It wears me out. I've only been in Manila 3 weeks, but I feel so tired already. Throughout the day I feel inspired, so many thing I want to write down. At the end of the day, however, I've got little to no creative juice left.

Thus, I continue to inhale and exhale deeply. I try to observe without absorbing. I practice. I practice on the mat. I practice off the mat. I do my best anyway. I continue to feel blessed by the gifts of yoga, which creates space where there appears to be none, which gives strength when I think there is none left, which clears the Manila mind of some excess traffic.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

yoga off the mat: license renewal, pinoy style

I started this evening's class by asking the students if anyone had already practiced yoga today? It was a 7:30pm class at Urban Ashram, Fort High Street in Manila. They looked at me peculiarly as they all nodded in the negative.

"Are you sure? No Yoga?" Was this some strange trick question from the new yoga teacher, they might have wondered.

I explained briefly three classical definitions of yoga.

According to Patanjali: "Yoga is the cessation of the whirlings of the mind."

And Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita said that yoga is "steady ease" and "skillfulness in action."

I asked them to think whether they had practiced any yoga while I shared with them the general flow of my day: I taught morning class, then self-practiced, in the early afternoon went to renew my drivers license, which expired last June, which brought me to two centers, the final one so full that it took just over 5 hours of cueing, waiting for medical tests, picture taking, more cueing before I went to teach my final class in the evening, legally driving to my next location.

I had started the day with yogasana, I was ending the day with yogasana, but the half day sitting, waiting in the backseat of a tediously long bureaucratic (Filipino bureaucracy) process was--I think--me really practicing yoga. This may seem strange.

I mean, I was just sitting there, seemingly so inactive. How could that be yoga?

It didn’t have to be. I could have whiled away the hours staring blankly at the backs of people’s heads. I could have been picked up by the wave of growing dissatisfaction, feeling irritated and restless. I could have checked my watch at each opportunity, slowing time with my unmet expectations of spending most of the afternoon writing in front of the computer and then going to a kirtan at the Art of Living center in Manila before teaching that evening. It could have been yet another event that was happening to me.

Instead, I reminded myself: I choose to be here. I committed to this travesty of civil service for the afternoon because I had a purpose. I was doing what needed doing.

By deciding that, I didn’t spend my time seething at the poor LTO workers drowning in paperwork, surrounded by people whose minds bent towards rioting against them. I accepted, at least for the afternoon, the poor conditions, and just got on with it. I read. And made notes on my book. I did my best to be constructive.

I don’t claim to be the only one practicing yoga that afternoon. There were others who smiled through the process, who I felt calmness from when I was beside them. But there were those who were fidgeting, pacing the space, or even mumbling angrily. They, sadly, were not practicing yoga.

I’m not saying it’s right to wait 5-6 hours, this is definitely an issue to be addressed in terms of operating with more efficiency. I am not condoning the way our government offices are so inefficiently run. But I think we should adopt a good attitude about things, one that’s constructive.

It hit me how difficult the situation was for everybody that day when I asked the woman taking my picture at about the 4th hour, innocently--I swear!, “What time do you think the license will be ready? I ask because I still have work.”

She was sharp with me, “Wait till we call you,” she said in Filipino. I asked again politely, sure that there must be an estimate. But she replied even more irately, “We will call you.”

This is when I felt that I was practicing yoga the most. It was a split second sort of processing: I was struck at how unfair she was being. I had a simple question, one I’m sure she could have answered. And I felt the tide of dissent well up within me. But then I could see that she’d been asked this very question the entire day, maybe in some not so nice ways. And along the way, she allowed herself to be victimized by the faulty system and the stressful situation, and had lost a touch of her own humanity along the way.  By understanding her difficulties, I had created distance from my own potential to be upset by the situation. I would not be another victim.

I stepped away then and asked someone who looked less stressed. At first, she reacted in a similar way. But when I repeated my question, again in a calm and friendly tone, I think she realized I was not making a ridiculous request and that there was no harm in actually sharing that information. It would be done in half an hour.

Why do we make life so hard for ourselves and for each other? Why do we create such enmity? We are all on the same boat, the same planet; we share the same struggles.

What if we practiced yoga all the time, even in the smallest, pedestrian moments such as these? How much more skillful would we be? How much more even-minded? How much more understanding would we have for each other?

Ok, practicing yoga in this way may not solve the world’s many issues, let alone the way the LTO is run, but it would create a shift in how we acted, in our attitudes. I can’t help but think how it’s the kind of shift that will allow us to be in the right state of mind to really work on things with love and with compassion.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

coming home

The Philippines. Manila. Home.

Coming home is like walking through the door of some magical, enigmatic poem. The colors, the people, the temperature are different. Everything, all sensory experiences, dialed up a notch.

It feels surreal. Each time, coming home feels more and more so. Perhaps because home remains somehow constant, while each journey continues to chip away at my human landscape. Each return makes each personal revolution more apparent; the experiment in contrast to the control. Manila, my marker.

I question this place. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Already home is challenging my sensibilities: my tastes, my diet, my sense of order, my renewed love for seasons and cooler climes. It must be doing its job as motherland: to test, to inspire, two sides of the same country coin.

It's only been 3 days but I have already experienced all sorts of things since returning. I have felt a deep sense of belonging. I've also felt strangeness and difference. I have felt calm and also short-tempered frustration. How is it that I can be perfectly natural one moment and perfectly out of place the next? Everything fits, but ever so imperfectly, clothes just slightly off, a wee bit loose here, sleeves ever so slightly short, a centimeter tight in some places.

Despite all of home's strangeness, all of my fish-out-of-water sensations, what I cannot deny is that there is a certain power to being here, to coming home. I have felt this before. That as it beams its invisible rays of dissonance, it also embraces me. It welcomes its wandering, prodigal daughter. It recharges my restless spirit, which like a spec of dirt that rests on the side of the mountain becomes a part of the mountain itself and is absorbed into Mother Earth.

Monday, October 29, 2012

the yoga of divine virtues

"In the beginning, love. In the end, love. In the middle, we have to cultivate virtues," says Gurumayi in the last chapter of "My Lord Loves a Pure Heart."

As I finish reading the book, a transcript of a series of lectures given by Swami Chidvilasananda in the Siddha Yoga ashram in South Fallsburg, New York in the summer of 1993, which expounds on the "Yoga of Divine Virtues" that Krishna explains to his student Arjuna in the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, I realize how this is exactly how my own summer has played out.

It started with love. It is ending with love. And the total "mess" in between has been a process of cultivating virtues, of developing the qualities necessary to embody and sustain that all-pervasive love that we seem to, more often than not, loose track of.

It has been a summer of unparalleled learning, full of the principles set forth in the Gita: fearlessness...purity of being...steadfastness in yoga...steadfastness in knowledge...freedom from anger...compassion...humility...respect...selfless service...the pure heart...

As I flip through the book now, I see how I walked through each chapter, learning the lessons in real time, in real life. Some came easily. Some were hard work. Others were like pulling teeth. Also, it hasn't been a straight-forward "read." There have been many twists and turns, highs and lows, which have really helped develop these qualities within me.

It's been an intense season. I have grappled with my darkest fears, I have been heated in the fires of experience, I have questioned my yoga practice and the principles behind it, I have been so sad and angry, I have had to find compassion for myself and those around me, I have been humbled, I have struggled to find self-respect and respect for others, I continue to strive at serving selflessly with pure intention, with a pure heart. It's been a full-on virtue-cultivating summer.

I do not claim to now fully exemplify these virtues, not even close. There have been times that I have felt frustrated that I couldn't connect with my inner light, that I could not keep my fears at bay, that my issues were overriding the qualities that I know myself to sincerely have. But I also know this is the part of the process that is yoga, that the fruit is the act of learning, of discernment, of slowly whittling down all these extraneous layers until there is nothing left but the Self, and there the pure heart waits, patient and knowing.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Nearly a year ago, I made a collage that was supposed to be inspired by my life. It was an assignment for "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, which my friend Clara and I, decided to explore during our months together in India. We rummaged through a whole lot of Indian magazines for the allotted 20 minutes, tearing out pictures and words that resonated. In the end, among my cut outs was a page of James Bond through time. I suddenly knew a lot of Jameses. Some as friends, a couple as more than friends, all of them, I felt, had something of import to share with me.

Yesterday, I went to see the latest James Bond film "Skyfall" with one of my Jameses, who is his own version of the international man of mystery, who--I think-- is actually more elusive than a secret agent.

Occasionally, reality and fiction collide. Before us life's little symbols played out on the big screen at the local cinema (actually, a very moderate-sized screen in terms of premier Hollywood blockbuster standards, but the twee English theater was so completely charming, it was absolutely perfect!).

There's Double-0-7, facing his enemy, a former agent turned mastermind criminal, once favored but then given up for dead, a reflection of Bond's own alter-ego, everything that he could have turned into had he completely fallen to the shadow-side of things. The future threat forces him to confront the dark past. His family home, haunted by ghosts of old, becomes a refuge, a place of retreat. But new dangers push on. James, however, is ready and waiting.

There's more to the story, of course. Actually, much more than the typical action/Bond-girl driven film. Themes of new versus old run rampant in the flick: the new technology versus the old fashioned ways of spying, the old guard versus the new guard, etc...Though they mostly tie, we see how the old ways are honored but with the acceptance of the new, a compromise that must be found in a changing world, a balance that is hard to negotiate.

Then there's the M-ummy issues--We won't even go there...

The whole thing, the movie, the company, me, was all so mirror-in-a-mirror-in-a-mirror. So close-up, however, that it's hard to see that it's all pretty funny in a strange "that's entertainment" sort of way.

Ultimately, I think the title says it all. Though it alludes to the name of Bond's ancestral home, it also connotes the problem and the solution of this action-drama. "Sky fall" is what happens in life, shit happens, things go pear-shaped, celestial bodies drop down to mere mortal height. "Sky fall" is also the action of surrender as you allow yourself to go through different life challenges, the different levels of psyche.

But can the sky really fall? No, have faith and the true nature of the world will reveal itself.

clocks go back, we still move forward

Autumn day at London Fields, Hackney.

The clocks go back tonight -- at least for the English, who observe daylight savings. There will be an extra hour of sleep for all of us within this time zone. Along with a little more morning light. But the days will shorten overall, as the sun keeps shorter hours in these northerly latitudes.

And while I will enjoy the extra hour in bed, I know that there is no turning back the clock, that time is a relentless pushy thing. There is no dodging it. No side stepping it. No ignoring it. It demands acknowledgement and respect. It keeps pushing onwards and with it comes its bedfellow, change.

This marks the end of my summer. No surprise, really, the signs of the changing seasons have been showering me lately. But I see that this is the end of one particular leg of what I am realizing might be an unending journey.

And quietly, alone in my borrowed bed, I respectfully honor the change. I bow to the sands of time that unceremoniously slip through my fingers. I do my best not to regret the lost hours and with it the misplaced opportunities, which I had neither the vision to see, nor the courage to undertake. For time also urges us forward. Out there, beyond time, our destiny awaits.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

packing up, paring down

"Travel light," my friend Chit told me, when I set off from the island. God knows, I've tried my best.

I probably could have done without the bikini--but having lived on an island, I always travel with one. Did I really need the little yellow cotton miniskirt or my homemade ripped up cotton T? Did the few days it was warm enough to wear them in Spain make it worth it? On the most part, the clothes I brought have properly served their purpose. Recently, I've been wearing a significant amount of them at the same time to keep sufficiently insulated in-doors. But I hardly used my practice poi. I didn't sweat enough to need more than one yoga towel. And I didn't get through all the notebooks and reading material I schlepped from Asia.

Packing once again, meticulously compressing the clothes and items that have made up my sum total belongings these past 3 months, I ask myself, did I really travel light?

All the stuff fits. All within weight limit. As a rule, I try to never bring more than I can carry.

Then there's all the baggage that we can't so easily quantify because, most of the time, we don't even know that it is there. The invisible suitcase or backpack that is filled with some of the oldest, funkiest, most useless sort of junk: catalogs of past ills, stories of self-sabotage, chestfuls of fears, storehouses of childhood trauma.

Without realizing it, I carried an enormous weight though-out Europe, old ghosts that piggybacked from place to place. They saddled me and rode me around like a show pony.

It's not entirely my baggage's fault. Whether or not I had consciously chosen to do so, I had brought it with me. And life on the road wasn't easy. Love may have been on the itinerary but it was more like love on the rocks. And the bumps unlocked the secret carrying case, allowing some of my oldest issues to come tumbling out into the open.

It's hard to move forward while bearing the burdens of the past. These things I've been carrying have made the journey heavy. They stalled my progress. I had a choice: continue to go nowhere or begin to let go.

Now, I realize how bogged down. And while these issues don't just simply go away, they do start to shrink under the light of day. With perspective, they get smaller and smaller and, in turn, I feel lighter.

When this trip started I was intent on moving forwards. What I see now is that the intention of pressing onwards is intrinsically linked with the past. But perhaps that's a part of the process, how our ability to move on, to grow, is contingent on letting go of the old things that impede us.

As I continue to unload the dross, I am wary that there is most likely more in there, this Mary Poppins-like carpet bag, which despite it's so-small-it's-practically-invisible appearance is quite mysteriously expansive. I can only hope there will be time and opportunity to carefully unpack everything.

Before I left North Yorkshire, my lovely host, upon seeing my luggage, commented on how I manage to travel light. Hmmm, not quite. But I am trying...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

language of the heart

The heart is like the tree of knowledge.

I've been considering my heart a great deal recently. I wake up thinking: "ok, dear one, how are we feeling?"

Over the last few months, it has given me all sorts of feedback, from the most sublime exhilaration to staggering uncertainty, from the subtle to gross physical input.

Interestingly, my head has been deferring to it. Though my mind has certain ideas, it knows the heart has an infinitely stronger grasp on things. So it asks. But it's not always easy to get the answer.

The heart has its own vocabulary. It does not communicate with the efficacy of the brain, which sends minute-by-minute memos, detailed reports and--on many occasions--entire dissertations. It does not argue--especially not with itself. It does not rally for a debate.

Instead, it sits quiet, but knowing. To tap into it, to understand what it understands, I have to feel it.

I am, however, an imperfect reader--I suspect that I am not alone in this. I associate feelings to memories, concepts, prejudices. So sometimes the messages of the heart get lost in the minefield of the mind.

Other times, I am contrary, sometimes even belligerent. I do not like what it has to say. So I ignore it. Or fight it. And in those times, I am in conflict with my true self, making myself feel crazy because I've wedged a brick wall between me and my deep internal wisdom.

So, I am trying to chip at this well-constructed wall. Taking it down, one brick at the time, slowly clearing the way for a healthier dialogue with my heart.

We are in talks, my heart and I, though I still have difficulty listening. I am trying to understand its language, which, though straightforward, gets muddled in the processing. I am struck at how far removed I am from my own feelings, which I feel but do not always fully comprehend. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

the play of recurring lessons

In the path of life, we really don't know what's around the bend...
I've been wondering lately whether life is on some strange loop. That even though an entire lifetime has passed since a year ago, something is eerily the same.

Ok, admittedly, things are definitely different. The setting is distinct from last year's locales. These are different streets, different pieces of scenery. The Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles, New York is a huge contrast from Europe and the Northern English town and country. The temperature is likewise--and unfortunately--different in higher latitudes.

There are new supporting characters, all of them unique and lovely, with very special things to contribute to this production. Last year's cast was also incredible. But the two principals remain the same: the heroine and the hero, their own dramas running alongside each other, weaving in and out, at times helping and other times grinding. Their dialogue is hard work.

Of course, this is a different crossroad, much further along the highway. There are many variations in the external factors--travel, family, close quarters, hectic schedules, etc...But the underlying plot feels very familiar. A journey. Two full of love, but also full of fears--very old fears. Other things play into it: lack of communication, lack of self-confidence, lack of trust, lack of honesty. Lots of lack, heroic flaws that do not become the protagonists. Ultimately, it is a love story of two that is also a tale of self-love.

But now, as I look on to two diverging roads, I think: "Here we go again!" At least my path seems to be made of stuff from last year's lessons. Virtues that I'd thought I'd learned but apparently not well enough, as they have returned with a vengeance to bite me/toughen me up. I think this is the play of recurring lessons, which inevitably and absurdly repeat until we finally deign to learn them.   

seasons change

A glorious autumn day in Durham. Though change is
in the air, it doesn't stop the sun from shining
--at least today. 

Trees shedding leaves in
Pickering, North Yorkshire.
One of the things striking about being in England now is seeing the season change. How trees and other foliage so vibrantly green three months ago are changing color. The landscape is speckled with yellows, browns and a splattering of deep oranges and dark auburn that characterizes the autumn season.

In the Philippines, where the two seasons are characterized by dry and wet while it stays generally hot and humid throughout, there’s less of a chance to mentally calibrate to the shifting sands of nature’s clock.

Here, I can’t help but feel how time and space are turning—and I along with it. The light changes. There’s a crisp chill in the air. Signs that transformation is afoot, that it is inevitable. 

Nature marks the end of what I had envisioned as my summer of love. It is time, she says, to shed the old leaves, once so lush and verdant, but which are now browning and must eventually die and fall. She reminds me, this is the way of the world. I cannot hold on.

Along with this sad—sad, because we mere humans grieve the passing of things—news, there’s the promise that after the cold frost of winter, when everything appears to die, but only deeply slumbers, comes the inevitable reviving spring.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

perfectly imperfect

A rose looks many different ways to many different people. 

Before the summer started, I imagined a season of love. I would be traveling with a dear friend who I loved deeply. We were going to get a chance to be together. And I thought that it was going to be perfect.

If you've ever traveled with a friend or partner, you'll know how naive I was being. Traveling with anyone for three and a half months is challenging at the best of times, more so when you are testing out the chemistry of two, each with their own needs, quirks, anxieties, back stories.

In many ways, this time has far exceeded my expectations. It has been incredibly special--in ways that I couldn't have even imagined. It has been a time full of seeing new things, healing, personal discovery, meeting really special people, teaching and learning in so many different levels and experiences. And I will be forever grateful to this friend of mine.

But it also hasn't been what I thought it would be. Needless to say: it hasn't been perfect.

In the Upanishads, however, it says that everything is  perfect.

Sometimes, I totally get this. I don't just get it, I share it with the enthusiasm of Little Miss Sunshine.

Yet, other times, when I take a good look around, especially at my own imperfect life, I can't help but ask, how can this be? Is everything really perfect?

Obviously, no. No, because reality isn't always pretty. Life is not easy.  It can be hard to live, earn a living, do what you like, embrace the person you love, or be who you are supposed to be.

Also, yes (says the unsinkable optimist in me)! Yes, because encoded in life's imperfections are the clues to being happy. They are lessons, albeit hard ones at times, that help us grow, be who we need to be. But being able to see this largely depends on your willingness to see.

This has me thinking about my own concept of perfection.

Amidst the tension of travel, my friend pointed out how it annoyed him that I wanted things to always be nice and that my ideas of perfection was unrealistic, that my sunny optimism even in the face of great difficulty was inauthentic.

Hrm... This has given me some food for thought.

It's true, I can dip towards near-cheerleading enthusiasm sans pompoms and cartwheels and my experience of "happy"have their origins in Hollywood musicals rather than my own woebegone childhood. When I was a kid, I thought truly happy people were supposed to break out in song spontaneously and the fact that this did not happen in my own life was only further proof of how sad and pathetic my life actually was.

I admit, this insane lingering desire for a life in cheerful technicolor needs to be addressed properly. And fast!
But I'm also no fool. Like everyone, I know suffering. I know life is tough and it is wrought with challenges. I obviously need to learn how some things genuinely need encouragement and some things don't. I don't mean to trivialize other people's pain or issues by being overly positive. And perhaps I lack a touch of realism, at times.

It's not that I'm out of touch, but that's kind of part of who I am. I believe in miracles. I believe thoughts are magic, that they are contagious, that they can change the world. Maybe my enthusiasm may seem unreal to some but it's totally wholehearted. It has helped me shift my own life and has helped me shift some of my relationships.

It is through that same loving lens that I can see how the world is perfectly imperfect, that I can accept with grace and gratitude that I too am that.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

karma yoga, walking meditation

Life is not a walk in the park. It’s much more like a trek in the mountains.

A month plus has gone by since my first walk in Parque National de Monte Perdido y Ordesa. It feels like a lifetime has passed since then. Time is this way right now, jumping from place to place, as I insanely follow my yoga-teaching nomad friend around Europe. So much happens from place to place, the scenery changes so fast and life along with it.

But that particular day with the area’s unraveling view of the mountain peaks and canyons of the Spanish Pyranees, I understood meditation more and how it works on the mind in a way I hadn’t so tangibly connected to before.

Our intention for the 3-hour trek that turned into a 9-hour odyssey thanks to the catchy enthusiasm of our guide, Casa Cuadrau’s Dani Benito Po, and the sheer majesty of the mountain surroundings that kept drawing us closer and closer was to make a meditation of our walk (a yoga of action or karma), each step with mindfulness, each moment with awareness.

With this design, we parked the car, chanted “Aum,” and set off across the fields where cows grazed, their neck bells like bellowing wind chimes. We had driven to great heights already, but before us were the foothills of even greater mountain ranges. Aside from the cows, we walked in silence, each of us going at our own pace.

Well, technically, we were silent, though this was not the case in my head.

We were slowly going uphill. I was trying to focus on each step, but I straggled behind with a riot of thoughts pulling at my heels. I could not keep them at bay. They trudged alongside me, a cacophonous school choir, the children of my disgruntled brain singing mutinous songs: “this walk is too much for you,” “you’re going to be left behind,” even the older, more nasty kids chimed in, “you’re not good enough.” 

I hate these mean children. And quickly rival thoughts interjected, which escalated in what was the equivalent of many lunchroom skirmishes, fake processed food hurling along with obscenities across the cafeteria of my mind, the playground for stupid juvenile delinquents.

And this was within the first 25 minutes.

Then I turned a corner and the path revealed the vast expanse of nature before me. I was called back into the present, from the desert of my mind to the scene of indescribable splendor, mountain ranges as far as the eye could see, scaling the sky so blue, while dramatic cliff edges dove into earth’s deep canyon crevices.

There was the now. Beautiful. Infinite. I was shaken from the misidentifications of my mind. I felt this place. I felt it in my bones and in my marrow. I felt it in my mind and in my heart. I felt that this was who and what I really was.

It was like nature’s confirmation that I wasn’t my thoughts, I wasn’t my story (erm, stories, plural), I wasn’t my body. That in essence I was one with the divine, as wondrous and full as the landscape. And this recognition had brought me back into the present path.

This is when the walking meditation started for me. I had arrived at the party, or the process. And now I could take part in the journey. My thoughts disappeared then as I focused on the actual act of walking, of being, of participating in the now.  And that made all the difference.

Having arrived, however, didn’t make the mountain path easy. The path was rarely straight. It went up and down. We edged dangerous cliff-sides. Being afraid of heights, this was a real issue for me.

It took time. It seemed unnecessarily long as we zig-zaged up and down the mountains, yet this was the easiest way. The path was ever changing because that is its nature. I could not change this. But I could be aware of it. As the path changed, so did I, the walker.

Each path is potentially full of obstacles: uphill, downhill, hard rocks, soft unstable ground. That’s how life is. But the obstacles are also opportunities for the great walker: tough gradients cultivate stamina, unstable ground teaches balance, boulders to scale inspire courage.

My focus wasn’t perfect the entire afternoon, either. The view awed, distracted as well as instructed. When I looked only at the path, I missed the rest of the world in front of me. When I looked only at the scenery, I lost the actual path and nearly tripped on rocks before me. There was a need for balanced attention, even perspective to the path and the world beyond.

At the end of this epic walk, I felt—other than great relief at my legs having survived a total of 7 hours of walking—greatly inspired to have taken part in such a yoga practice. This is the yoga of action, of learning from everyday things, of learning to sanctify the most pedestrian of actions.

I had learned a lot on that day. And continue to do so as I constantly steer my wandering mind back to the here and now, applying the lessons of attentiveness in my day-to-day actions. 

I'll be honest, it's not been easy these weeks, continuing to walk the path of the everyday, which I think can be more treacherous than the mountains. But I continue to hold on to that feeling of sublime wholeness that I experienced in the Spanish Pyranees, especially during these times which seem designed to challenge my sense of self. Knowing that one day, I won’t need to recall the scene to feel total and utter fullness. But for now I continue to practice the act of being, which is in itself yoga of action and an act of love.

the rock

Monte Perdido, or "Lost Mountain" in the Spanish Pyranees, part-inspiration for this poem.

The rock

My heart,
this lost mountain
are the same, though
they may not look it.

Porous limestone deposits
leak water. No matter
how much it rains,
no matter how
much snowfall
melts from the peaks,
it cannot hold the
heavenly deluge.

All flow downward
towards the canyon
where all sorts of life
drink their fill, though
the heights are always
thirsty, calcareous throats
dry and chalky.

Topography varies
smooth and curvaceous.
Life is delicate up here,
minute flora, small
but singular, so unlike
their sizable counterparts,
carpet the landscape.
It is also rough and jagged,
terrain so temperamental,
loose bits make for unsafe
footing, though its core
is wholly solid.

Yet, it is not as hard
as it appears. It is also
soft, organic, malleable. 
Time has made its marks,
etched itself into mineral
tablets, life and its
perpetual alphabet:
the history of the world,
according to the mountain.

Deeply rooted, it endures.
It changes. Adapts.
It ages slowly.
Little by little scraped at
with elemental fingertips.
Molded by earth’s deep fires
and rumbling stomachs,
sculpted by changing winds,
from deep freezes to watery
graves that chip, chip, chip
away at it. Nature is an
unkind lover; sweet caresses
scar the mountain’s face,
but not its essence.

It is called “lost”
Because, on occasion,
it goes missing,
because it appears and
disappears from
different vantage points,
from this angle and
that distance.
Still, it does not move,
it is true, it does not
go anywhere.

Rock on which my love is built,
living a long, long time,
but not lasting forever.

--K. Castillo

Thursday, September 20, 2012

yoga, love and marriage

It’s been an interesting journey recently. As usual, filled with a variety of themes. Love and yoga, of course, are constants, but also the idea of marriage. Though each have their particular connotations, they all mean love, they all mean union. Three similar strands woven into my summer tangle.      

For me, it started with an innocent thought after a long separation from the beloved. One that I might have easily kept locked securely in my head, but instead shared quite freely, without inhibition. How at that moment I had wanted to say the words that I had hoped to one day hear from someone that I loved and esteemed, with whom "as long as we both shall live" might not seem like much time at all. Though I hadn't meant to propose, the idea had captured us both. 

The glow of possibility lasted for about a week. That's when a combination of reality and fear set in, causing the entire relationship to scale back into the shadows of undefinability. And though that saddened me, I have to admit that it also appealed to the part of me that is dead-scared of "marriage" and its evil twin "separation."

Because I must love torturing myself, I decided to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to her best selling “Eat Pray Love"--which  I reread last summer just as I was going through my own heart-breaking (and as it turns out, heart changing/mending) drama. I obviously have an affinity for good ole Liz!

In “Committed,” the obsessive compulsive (but charmingly so!) writer talks herself into marrying her partner Philippe, who is abruptly ejected from the Unites States, her home country. Since Philippe is Brazilian and the US Immigration is more pragmatic then romantic, Philippe was deported after too many extended stays. In order to continue co-habitating in the US, the couple decide to get married--a horrifying thought for two survivors of tragic divorces from their first marriages.

Gilbert delves into how marriage is viewed in different cultures. How the institution has performed certain functions throughout history, from practical day to day survival, to the fiscal, to community-building. How the expectation of happiness from marriage is relatively new to the scene. How there is power embedded in the act of marriage. How there has been a fight as to who might control this power, from the outlaw of slave marriages to the more recent issue of gay marriages in the US. She makes a pretty good argument on why marriage is an act of great subversiveness, one I liked greatly and one which she favors in the end.

Then I arrived in England just in time to celebrate the ruby wedding anniversary of my friend's parents. The precious red gem is a symbol of great achievement, which suits 40 years of matrimony. It was a low key event, a handful of friends, a lovely meal at a well-appointed local pub, and then champagne, tea and cake at home. The entire day was charming. The sun had come out, the first really nice day since I'd landed. Before lunch, I watched this beautiful older couple excitedly open all their greeting cards, for 40 years inspires many well-wishers, and then give to each other some thoughtfully picked presents: ruby jewelry, a painting admired at an exhibition, a handmade commemorative plate topped with stem ginger chocolate. After lunch, I watched the two cut--in a similar fashion as their wedding day, which was ensured by the comedic best man who made certain all appropriate customs for a ruby anniv were properly observed--into the most moist and drinkable homemade fruit cake, topped with a ceramic groom dipping his bride, a decorative piece that they shopped for together.

For someone like myself, whose parents divorced when I was young, seeing all this is like receiving a soothing, warm balm. It's one thing to contemplate marriage, another thing completely to see it last a lifetime.

Dani and Kalyani's "altar."

Just this last weekend, my new friends Dani and Kalyani got married. Their altar: the dramatic landscape of Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park in the Spanish Pyranees. Their witnesses: a hundred twenty or so of their friends and family, as well as Mother Nature herself. Theirs is a union steeped in yoga. They met in India just this spring, noticing each other singing to the Devine Mother at the temple at the Sivandanda Ashram in Kerala. They are now, combining dreams, building and running Casa Cuadrau, a beautiful new retreat center in the Village of Vio.

For me, the timing of their meeting is perfect. There was Dani, half a decade, building a house—a foundation for a dream and a life’s calling—which was finally nearly ready. There was Kalyani, at a crossroad, leaving Toronto, pondering her return to Mexico with a desire to start her own yoga project. 

This is what I believe: the goddess, in her infinite wisdom, drew them both towards each other. Both had the intention of sharing deeply. Dani had built a house. But together, Kalyani and Dani will build a home. Together, they bring balance. The masculine and the feminine, shiva and shakti, manifest power and infinite creative potential. Their energies will compliment each other. Their mutual love for yoga and their dedication to share from the heart will light the home fire. With their warmth and light, Casa Cuadrau will grow, and so, I suspect, will they.

All these instances seem intertwined with my own love story this season. There are two story lines, actually: loving myself and loving another, which also intersect/collide accordingly. 

When I was in Madrid last week, I recalled my last trip to the old Spanish city, almost a year and a half ago. I was walking down one of the romantic little side streets of La Latina, telling a friend, who I was swiftly falling in love with, how I didn't have any role models when it came to married couples, how I was determined to be my own role model. And then, caught up in the moment, we kissed.  

I wonder now what kind of a role model I've made since then. Though unmarried, I have certainly welcomed love. I've chased it down. I've given it freely. I've rejoiced at receiving it. I have mourned the moments when it felt as if it were being taken away. I have, on occasion, lost myself in the other, a very very bad habit, I know. I have had expectations. I have been fearful. I have been grasping.

I grew up believing in fairy tales, that there was a charming prince around the corner waiting to save the distressed damsel. When I was older, I began to be fascinated by the concept of soul mates. I was enchanted by creation myths that illustrated the separation of two, the division of lovers, destined to search for one another. All of which reinforced this idea that to feel whole, you had to be in love.

At some point in my adulthood, I gave up on these ideals. In fact, I think I'd given up on love completely. But that day in Madrid and many other days afterwards have changed that.

Over the last couple of years, however, what keeps on coming up for me is that I need to rescue myself. I need to recognize the soul mate deep within. That wholeness is inherent in me, as with everyone. Again, that I need to be my own role model. Concepts that seem so clear and yet seem so easy to forget at the most crucial times. I wholeheartedly believe that if I can keep that self-love steady, then the love for the other will become more fluid, more seamless. And if there is no one particular soul to pour such a river of love into, all is still well.

A couple of weeks ago, Kalyani was telling me about the vows she and Dani plan to share. She explained that she wanted to express how her happiness didn't depend on Dani, nor his on her. Instead, they wanted to share each other's happiness, which was already full to begin with. I guess I feel pretty lucky, the universe seems to once again have my back, sending me role models when I falter at being my own.

For me, this has been this season's yoga, filled with the challenges of connection and the gifts of love. No matter what, it is still love. Love teaches. Love connects. Love lives in all of us.